Apple Watch Series 3 review

Buy the Apple Watch Series 3, but not to replace your phone (yet)

The Apple Watch Series 3 is the best smartwatch you can buy -- and oh so close to replacing your phone.
The Apple Watch Series 3 is the best smartwatch you can buy -- and oh so close to replacing your phone.
The Apple Watch Series 3 is the best smartwatch you can buy -- and oh so close to replacing your phone.

Highs

  • Makes calls from your wrist
  • Voice control is excellent
  • A joy to use
  • Masses of personalization options
  • Superb fitness tracking ability

Lows

  • Third-party app support is lacking
  • Expensive
  • Speaker is quiet

The Apple Watch is the world’s best selling watch. Think about that for a moment. Not the best selling smartwatch; but the best selling watch overall. Despite many questions about whether people need smartwatches, or the usefulness of them in the first place; Apple sells more watches than Casio, Fossil, Swatch, Rolex, or anyone else.

The Apple Watch Series 3 promises to be an even bigger seller, because it apparently does something many have wanted from the start — it can potentially replace your phone. Our Apple Watch Series 3 review reveals that this still isn’t possible at the moment, but that the situation is highly likely to change in the future, once developers and app makers get started.

Does that mean it should be ignored? Forgotten? No. This is the best selling watch for a reason — it’s the best smartwatch you can buy, by far.

Design

Have you seen the Apple Watch Series 1, and the Apple Watch Series  2? Then you’ve seen the Apple Watch Series 3. It’s identical in shape and design; the only hint that you’re wearing the latest model with 4G LTE is a colored dot on the Digital Crown. We imagine that’s the only reason it’s there, and would actually rather it wasn’t. It adds nothing to the watch’s style. The underside of the Apple Watch Series 3 is a sliver thicker than the old models, but you’ll never notice.

Apple has introduced new straps with the Series 3 Watch, a series called Sport Loop. It’s like posh Velcro, and uses the same hook-and-eye system to secure it around your wrist. It’s certainly very comfortable, and due to its fitting, is suitable for all wrist sizes. The hardware attaching the strap to the watch is plastic, however, and looks cheap. Metal hardware would be much more preferable. Luckily there are hundreds of aftermarket strap options.

The OLED screen is the same as before. It’s beautifully bright and colorful, but it works best with a black watch face, because the screen seamlessly becomes one with the bezel, giving the impression that the entire front of the watch is a single screen. It looks wonderful. The Digital Crown rotates to navigate through messages and lists, a press selects or enters the helicopter view of all the installed apps, while the primary button underneath goes back a step or opens a list of recently used apps. Otherwise, all interactions with the watch are carried out using the touchscreen, which is responsive, precise, and a joy to use.

There’s a definite slickness and tactile pleasure from the Apple Watch’s screen that you don’t get with screens on most Android Wear watches. It feels more expensive, and encourages you to work with it. The lack of a raised body around it helps, as does the curved glass. We’ve been testing the aluminum bodied version, but stainless steel and ceramic are also available, if you’re willing to pay more. All have water resistance to a depth of 50 meters, and can be used when swimming.

The Apple Watch Series 3 may be more of the same, but it’s still ahead of the competition.

No phone needed

If you choose the Apple Watch Series 3 with 4G LTE — and there is a slightly cheaper model just with GPS — you’ll get a watch with a built-in eSIM , ready to connect to a cellular network and enable operation without your phone. Essentially, it becomes your phone. There’s no physical SIM inside, it’s a virtual one that uses the same number as your phone, so all the usual phone-based activity is replicated on your wrist.

The Apple Watch Series 3 is, by a massive distance, the best smartwatch you can buy

This isn’t a free service. You have to pay extra for the pleasure of not using your phone. The best way to think about it is like an add-on data plan for a tablet. You retain your phone plan and pay a little extra for another device. In the United States, all four major networks support the Apple Watch Series 3’s eSIM, provided you are a monthly subscriber, and charge what works out to be $10 extra per month, after various deals have been applied. In the United Kingdom, there is less choice. Only EE supports the eSIM at the moment, and it costs five British pounds extra on top of your monthly contract price to add the Apple Watch.

What’s it like? That depends. Do you spend a lot of time with access to Wi-Fi? If so, then your Watch will use that, and not the cellular network. Also, there’s no way to turn off Wi-Fi, so if the network’s slow, tough luck, you can’t switch. The Watch also gets confused with public Wi-Fi networks, due to conflicting security recommendations from your other Apple devices, often resulting in no connectivity at all. Apple will release a fix for this bug soon. You can tell what it’s connected to by swiping up to the Control Center and looking for the connectivity dots, a Wi-Fi icon, or a phone icon in the top left of the screen.

Making a phone call is straightforward enough, but hearing the caller when outside is a challenge as the speaker isn’t very loud. You have to raise the watch closer to your ear, which is awkward and makes you look silly. Callers appear to hear you well though, in our early tests. The Apple Watch has Bluetooth, so you can connect a set of headphones or an earpiece to it. Annoyingly, there’s no way to make FaceTime Audio calls.

Apple’s iMessages can be sent and replied to, using canned replies or the “scribble” system — where each letter is traced on the touchscreen to form words in your messages — or simply using your voice. Scribbles and canned responses are fine if you’re in a hurry, but not for longer messages. Voice actually works very well, and the Watch transcribed our conversational test messages perfectly each time, even in a noisy cafe. You could easily have a long text conversation using this system, if you don’t mind talking to your watch.

Siri will also help out with hands-free operation, such as replying to messages and making calls. We streamed music purchased from iTunes, which worked well, and there’s storage space for other music files on the Watch. To sync tracks you select playlists in the Watch app, which are transferred when the Watch is on charge. It’s a slow process. Oddly, Apple Music integration isn’t available now, and will be added in the near future. Other iOS apps, such as Mail and Weather, also work across the cellular network.

Use apps outside Apple’s ecosystem and problems start to emerge, however. Even apps with Apple Watch versions, like Twitter, Line, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, and WeChat, all require the phone to be connected to the watch to operate. WhatsApp, a messaging app used by more than a billion people globally, doesn’t have an Apple Watch app at all. This means if you regularly receive messages through these apps, you won’t get them on your Apple Watch Series 3 if it’s not connected to your phone. Facebook Messenger and Slack worked some of the time, but not directly through the app itself. It was possible to respond to a Messenger message through a notification, but the conversation couldn’t be viewed or interacted with in the app. Line provides notifications when away from your phone, but the app hangs when you try to read them.

All these apps and others may receive updates to change this situation in the near future. But for now, the Apple Watch Series 3 is slightly hobbled when disconnected from your phone. It’s a halfway house, essentially: Great if you use Apple’s services, poor if you rely on others. Ultimately though, you can leave your phone behind and use only the Apple Watch Series 3, provided the restrictions don’t bother you.

Performance, battery, and software

The Apple Watch Series 3 has a new dual-core processor and the new model is undeniably faster than ever. If you’re used to the Apple Watch Series 1, it’ll be a revelation. It’s smoother and faster to respond, and it zips through multiple apps. It’s no longer the frustrating experience it once was.

WatchOS 4 comes installed on the Apple Watch Series 3, and it’s almost the same as earlier versions of the OS, with a few style changes. The Dock, which replaced Glances last year, shows your recently used open apps in a vertically scrolling list; access it with a press of the large side button and sift through by touch or the Digital Crown. Swipe left on an app and the option to close it pops up.

The Watch transcribed our conversational test messages perfectly each time

There are several new watch faces. Woody, Jessie, and Buzz from Toy Story join Mickey and Minnie, along with a psychedelic kaleidoscope face; more helpful is the face that incorporates a Siri complication, a news feed, and a Breathe reminder. WatchOS 4 is available for all Apple Watches, indicating the Watch Series 3 will be supported for several years to come. It seems Apple is doing its best to make the Watch a tech product that will last a good while, just as a watch should.

Battery life is great, if your use is varied. We’re three full days into using the Watch and have only needed to charge the battery once. It spent its time being used as a standalone device, and connected to the phone, which is key to preserving its standby time. Finding and holding a cellular signal is power-intensive, and like your phone, when reception is low the battery life decreases as it searches for a signal. The battery percentage meter definitely decreased faster when not connected to the phone, as expected. But after an hour in the gym with the Watch using its own data service, tracking our workout, and streaming Bluetooth music, it only dropped by seven percent. Also, keeping the new continuous heart rate monitoring system on doesn’t seem to negatively affect battery life either.

At the end of the day, it’s no worse than previous Apple Watch models for battery life; but no better either.

Fitness

The Apple Watch is a superb fitness, health, and lifestyle tracker. It’s clear, concise, informative, and encouraging, and with many different modes to suit the majority of people. If you just want to know steps and calories burned, the “three-ring” system works brilliantly. It’s obvious how close you are to a goal, and you get a cool animation when you complete one. Adding heart-rate monitoring is easy, and there are varied tracking options for walking, running, cycling, swimming, and more. Everything gets collated in the Activity app on your phone, where it’s laid out in an easy to understand way.

That’s before you start to enjoy the benefits of reminders to move, heart-rate tracking through the day, the Breathe mindfulness feature, and the many third-party fitness and health apps. It’s incredibly comprehensive.

After using the Huawei Watch 2 in the gym for several months, which performs well, the speed of the Apple Watch Series 3 was immediately obvious and genuinely impressive. Menu access was instant, the Bluetooth connection to our headphones was faultless, and it was considerably easier to just select a workout and get going. It’s an altogether more cohesive and logically thought-out approach to fitness tracking than almost every other product this reviewer has tried.

Price, warranty, and availability

There are several different Apple Watch models. A basic aluminum Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS only, and a regular Sport Band costs $330. The Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS and cellular, with the Sport Band or new Sport Loop, is $400. These prices are for the 38mm model, so add another $30 to the price if you need the larger 42mm model. Choose the stainless-steel version with sapphire crystal over the screen and the price starts at $600. The ceramic case model starts at $1,300 and is available only with cellular.

Apple provides a one-year warranty with the Watch Series 3, which covers the device if it suffers from problems due to manufacturing errors. If you want accidental damage cover, you’ll have to pay for AppleCare+ insurance, which costs $50 for two years of coverage and telephone support. AppleCare+ for the ceramic Apple Watch Series 3 costs $100 for two years.

The Apple Watch Series 3 is available through the Apple Store online, its retail stores, and other retailers now.

Our Take

The one major new feature to the Apple Watch Series 3 — cellular connectivity — isn’t a reason to buy it, at least, not yet. But Apple’s Watch was already the best smartwatch you could buy, and the strong performance and sensible software enhancements have ensured it easily retains that title for the near future.

Is there a better alternative?

If you own an iPhone, no, there isn’t a better alternative smartwatch to the Apple Watch. You may want to think twice about purchasing the model with 4G LTE, however. It cannot replace your phone at the moment, unless all you ever use are Apple apps to communicate with people. It also costs extra every month on top of your existing phone plan.

The faster chip inside is a big bonus, and we’d suggest thinking very seriously about buying the Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS only to and save yourself money. You’ll get all the power benefits without the not-quite-finished phone aspect. This should change in the future as apps are updated and released, but there’s no guarantee when developers will do so.

How long will it last?

The Apple Watch Series 1 came out two-and-a-half years ago and has been updated to the latest software, and it’s still sold by Apple now. This tells us the Apple Watch Series 3 should have a three-year lifetime at an absolute minimum, from a software point of view. (Being outdated by software is incredibly frustrating, isn’t it?) The new watch is faster and more durable than ever before, plus because the design hasn’t changed, it’ll remain visually fresh. It’s reasonable to think the Apple Watch will be usable, battery dependent, for four years or more.

Should you buy it?

Yes. The Apple Watch Series 3 is, by a massive distance, the best smartwatch you can buy. WatchOS easily eclipses Android Wear, from the fitness features to the neatness with which the cellular connectivity has been integrated, and it’s lightning fast in comparison. Even set up is easier, and that’s before we take into account the extensive range of straps and Watch accessories to personalize it later on. Simply put, if you have an iPhone, want a smartwatch, and don’t buy an Apple Watch, you’re making the wrong decision.

That’s not the end of the conversation though. Despite adding cellular connectivity, the Apple Watch still can’t replace your phone, and therefore isn’t an essential piece of kit. It remains an expensive add-on to your smartphone that isn’t particularly necessary. We wouldn’t be rushing to upgrade from a Series 2 Watch, but Series 1 owners should consider it for the speed benefits alone.

We do find the Apple Watch useful, though mostly for the basics like notifications, and the style has continued to grow on us over the past few years. Think twice about buying the Apple Watch Series 3 with cellular though, as it hasn’t achieved the dream of becoming a phone replacement just yet.

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